White is the new Green

It’s election season in Australia. It feels like certain parties have been campaigning since the last election, but no, that happy time is actually upon us for real.  And what a campaign it’s been.  The highlight for me has been watching the Wikileaks Party collapse into a completely predictable morass of hypocrisy, but really, if it’s a minor party — or a major one, come to that — acting like amateurs you’re after, this is the election campaign for you.

Because it’s impossible to waste your vote in Australia, I’ve always given my first preference to the Greens, on the grounds that a big enough far-left presence will facilitate (or, you know, force) compromise in the major parties. But I’ve otherwise considered myself an ALP supporter.

Exciting fact: nothing will have me throwing my wholehearted support behind the Greens like instituting a horrible refugee policy that involves shipping asylum seekers to Papua New Guinea and ensuring there is no possibility of their ever stepping foot in Australia.

This is shitty both to asylum seekers, and to the people of Papua New Guinea, who already deal with corrupt government, corporations trying to exploit their mineral wealth, high levels of violence, a complex system of land ownership that restricts it to members of kinship groups, and more.

(Let’s be real, though, a lot of PNG’s problems stem from that time it was Australia’s colony. Like, our actual colony. We gave it up in, what, ’74, ’75? Very shortly before my birth. So it’s really cute that now Australia is both exploiting it and using its dysfunction as scare tactic.)

I was quite angry about that, so I read the policies of every single party that had posted them, and decided I liked the Greens best. (Digression: The Palmer United Party’s policies were weirdly preoccupied with stopping Japan from buying up Australia’s mineral wealth. But Japan is not Australia’s biggest export market for minerals. That would be … seriously, you mixed up China and Japan in your policies?)

In fact, ABC’s Vote Compass tells me I’m just a degree to the right of the Greens, so why I have I been an ALP supporter all these years? (Well, because I’m a big fan of supporting workers’ rights, and that’s not really a huge priority for the Greens. On the other hand, in fact — as opposed to rhetoric — it’s not a massive priority for Labor anymore either.)

In the spirit of actually doing something, I spent Saturday morning putting fliers in letterboxes, and there’s a sign in our front yard, and I’m handing out how to vote cards on election day. (Problems of the newly gluten-intolerant: I planned my whole election day around accessibility to sausage sizzles — but now I can’t eat bread or cheap sausage!)

The candidate poster for the electorate of Wills.
The candidate poster for the electorate of Wills.

So that’s all very nice, and I take heart from the media’s obsession with the Greens being a spent force and the major parties’ simultaneous obsession with dissuading people from voting for them. At any cost, ie, they’re even preferencing each other.

Accordingly, the Greens member for the electorate of Melbourne (as opposed to the city of Melbourne), Adam Bandt, the party’s only member of the House of Representatives, is spending a whole lot of money on advertising. More, in fact, than the ALP candidate, so that’s nice?

Only, I keep looking at the ads. They’re your standard sort of happy, aspirational advertising. A slogan and attractive, slim white people–

Oh, hang on a minute.

I’ve seen a fair amount of Greens billboards around the inner suburbs.  With one exception — a poster criticising university funding cuts, featuring two women, one white, one South Asian — all feature white people.

(I should say, I haven’t seen every single Greens poster.  I had hoped to find the material for the Melbourne campaign online, but it doesn’t seem to be around.)

This billboard stands at the corner of Lygon and Elgin Streets.
This billboard stands at the corner of Lygon and Elgin Streets.

And Melbourne is a very diverse electorate! Crikey, in 2012, noted that just over 40% of residents are non-English speakers (I wonder if that is no English at all, or English as a second language?), and that the area has “substantial Chinese, Vietnamese and Korean populations”. The inner city contains several universities and a lot of student housing, so some of those people are going to be international students rather than voting citizens. But I have no idea how big or small that proportion is going to be.

(And given the amount of people on student visas who go on to become permanent residents and later citizens, it makes sense to represent that demographic as well.  I don’t actually have numbers here, mind, I’m just going from experience, ie, I transcribe a lot of immigration cases involving students who wish to stay.)

Basically, it is really dodgy that the Greens campaign is so white. It would be dodgy even in an electorate that wasn’t incredibly diverse, but as it is, it just seems like a really terrible oversight.

Curious, I went along to the Greens website. The rotating advertising on the front page features two white children; a turtle; a group of eight white people and one Indigenous man; white protesters against refugee policy, photographed from the back; and one woman of colour, wearing a hijab, presumably representing asylum seekers.

A young Asian woman, wearing heavy eye make-up, a blank expression and a blue hijab.  Captaion: OUR PLAN SAVES LIVES - A new, humane approach to asylum seekers.
The most prominent person of colour on the Greens website.

This picture is quite interesting. The face of asylum seekers, in the eyes of the Greens, is a young, attractive woman, wearing make-up, presenting a passive face to the viewer. She’s both object and fantasy figure.

There is another face of asylum seekers in the media.

A slim, fair-skinned Iranian woman cries into her hands. Her face is blurred out.
This picture was released by the Department of Immigration as a symbol of its successful policies. Yeah.

This is a picture of an Iranian asylum seeker learning that she will not be resettled in Australia. It was posted by the Immigration Department as propaganda for the new “PNG solution”. Because this is a country where we’re expected to see a picture of a distraught person in need and feel satisfaction.

Unlike the Greens’ picture, she’s not passive. She’s dressed functionally, in western clothes. She’s not posing. She is an object and a fantasy figure, but an unwitting one, conscripted into the role and used for propaganda.

In the interests of fairness, I should point out that the cover of the Greens’ policy platform features two people of colour in amongst the white faces. And I’m sure it’s just coincidence that the black woman’s face is cut off. I mean, lots of faces are cut off, but hers more than anyone else. Pure accident, I’m sure. No subtext here.

Now, here’s the thing. If the Greens are going to thrive as Australia’s third major political party, they need to have a wider appeal than their current “educated, middle-class inner-urban” type of demographic. Outside of that group, there’s a perception that the Greens will throw working class and blue collar workers under the bus if it means they can save a koala. That’s a problem they need to start addressing, both through policy and through presentation.

What they should also be addressing, perhaps, is the way they have positioned themselves as white saviours in the refugee debate. As Stephanie linked the other day, “immigrants against immigration” is a peculiar aspect of the current debate, but it’s not the whole of the story. Not all Greens supporters are white, and not all refugee advocates are white. And the overlap between those two groups, I would say, is not inconsiderable. The use of mostly white models in their advertising creates an ugly subtext, one that cheapens their message. I like the Greens, but they’ve dropped the ball here. They can do better.


7 thoughts on “White is the new Green

  1. Excellent post. Here in Canada, the Greens have very sketchy policies on both labour (not that the NDP, our equivalent of Labour, is particularly pro-labour either anymore) and immigration. It’s actually pretty common for liberal environmental groups in North America to be anti-migrant; I don’t know how it is in Australia. And yeah, very white.

    1. I’ve noticed a couple of fringe parties in this election who take an anti-immigration stance on environmental grounds. (And it’s true that Australia’s resources are limited and our ecology can be quite delicate — on the other hand, better use of those resources would stretch them a lot further.)

      But in the last decade or so, the Greens have repositioned themselves as a general progressive party, and are accordingly non-racist, pro-refugee, etc.

  2. I think this post damns the Greens quite unfairly, despite an initial attempt to qualify its criticism. Really these are criticisms that should be directed at the major parties, and not at the Greens.

    Their political statements and policies, and the campaign material you link to all indicate an awareness that Australia is multiethnic, and a willingness to actively communicate that back to the electorate.

    Even your comment above – I don’t agree that the Greens have “repositioned” themselves as pro-refugee and anti-racist. They’ve held those values since their inception, despite the fact the related issues have become increasingly polarising since Howard dragged the debate to the right in 2001.

    The Greens also have a firm connection to the labour movement (and were backed by various unions at the election) and, at least, a firm grasp of the economics of land management policy reform. I don’t think it’s just to rather uncritically validate speculation about Green “inner urban elitism” (which is basically Right rhetoric).

    Do you think you could go further to explain your political justification for a demand for additional representation of POC vs whites in Greens campaign material?

    Basically, it is really dodgy that the Greens campaign is so white. It would be dodgy even in an electorate that wasn’t incredibly diverse, but as it is, it just seems like a really terrible oversight.

    Isn’t the material you’re linking to nationally targeted? Why should the demographics of the seat of Melbourne determine its content in any way – wouldn’t that be an example of the inner-urban fixation you think the Greens should avoid?

    I agree that moral vanity and white saviour syndrome is real and certainly exists in the Greens electoral base, but they do seem to go to some lengths to prevent those dynamics from propagating through their layer of representation.

Comments are closed.